The fight against clothes line bans

Clothes line

For decades, the clothes line has had an image problem in the US but, ahead of a rally to highlight the benefits of natural drying, is it about to be reclaimed?

There is a new protest movement sweeping the US and at its heart are two sticks and a piece of string.

Upon the humble clothes line, a battle line has been drawn that embodies a uniquely American clash of ideas about class, liberty and the environment.

Rules imposed by community associations and landlords forbid tens of millions of home owners to dry their washing outside because, they say, it's unsightly and even lowers property prices.

But a number of clothes line rebels have risked legal action by disobeying these rules, saying it is the duty of Americans to reduce their carbon footprint and leave their energy-hungry tumble dryers idle.

This Sunday their supporters will make their feelings known by holding a rally in Concord, New Hampshire to promote line drying.

These unlikely dissenters come in all ages and from all backgrounds. After moving to Witney Ridge in Pennsylvania nearly three years ago, Deborah Brensinger, a 55-year-old nurse, immediately began hanging her clothes in her back yard.

"Our government is trying to encourage working with the environment and doing things to cut down electricity, yet here's something totally free.

"I get to see my neighbours, it's clean and it smells good. It's a contemplative practice. I don't rush it, I enjoy it. It relieves stress. You can do it leisurely at your own pace, in a world that's so fast-paced."

'I must fight back'

Wei Wang

Wei Wang (above) a 49-year-old mother-of-three in Maryland, is continuing to hang out her washing, despite the threat of legal action.

"Energy savings and reducing pollution is more important, so I think I should stand up and fight back. I grew up in China and I was taught by my mother to use this method all the time.

"I've lived in Europe too, and it's only Americans that don't like clothes lines."

She says she checked her neighbours had no objections, and the line can't be seen from the street. But after the threat of legal action from her association, the mother-of-three now dries her five loads of washing a week on drying racks around her home, much to her annoyance.

"Everyone thinks people do whatever they want in their back yards. If I went out there in a bikini, it wouldn't matter but hanging my clothes out does. It doesn't make sense."

Mrs Brensinger is one of 60 million Americans living in about 300,000 communities governed by home-owning associations, where living in a flat, mobile home or even detached house, means accepting regulations on the appearance of homes and gardens.

The majority of these associations ban or restrict the use of clothes lines but, with a mindful eye on energy consumption, six states have fought back.

Florida, Utah, Maine, Vermont, Colorado and Hawaii have passed laws restricting the rights of housing authorities to stop residents from using clotheslines, and several other states including Pennsylvania are considering similar bills.

'Prudery plays a part'

Helen Caldicott

Australian anti-nuclear advocate Helen Caldicott spent 18 years living in the US.

"Tumble drying is absolutely unnecessary. They can hang their clothes out in summer and by the furnace in the basement in winter. But they are being brainwashed that they need to machine dry.

"Part of it is also that they don't want to be looking at Mrs Brown's underwear. I suppose that prudery comes from the Puritans."

The pro-clothesline movement's champion is Alexander Lee, the 36-year-old founder of Project Laundry List, an organisation based in Vermont that campaigns for the so-called right to dry. He says its supporters are drawn from all social groups and backgrounds, uniting "libertarians and environmentalists, Christian mothers and radical homeowners".

When a college student in 1995, one statement uttered by a visiting anti-nuclear lecturer, Helen Caldicott, inspired him: "If we all did things like hang out our clothes, we could shut down the nuclear industry."

This energy-saving message forms the central plank of his campaign. Official figures say that tumble dryers guzzle 6% of household electricity, second only to fridges, but Lee estimates the actual figure to be three times higher. He says that if one in three Americans started line drying for five months of the year, 2.2m tonnes of CO2 would have been prevented from entering the atmosphere by 2020.

"The movement is increasing because we have these three problems that are converging - the energy crisis, the climate crisis and the personal finance crisis. We believe that it's a patriotic duty to conserve energy. There should be a victory clothes line at the White House."

Washing line In Italy, washing lines are a common sight

His campaign outlines other reasons to support line drying - good exercise, nice-smelling clothes, saving $25 (£16) a month in electricity bills, avoiding fire hazards and even mood-improving. And then there's also his aesthetic admiration for the clothes line, "its Gestalt, its organic beauty, its simple functionality, the colourful panorama dancing on the line".

British film maker Stephen Lake has travelled around the US, speaking to people affected by these regulations. The 24-year-old, who writes and directs a film on the subject, called Drying For Freedom, out early next year, says: "If a buyer goes down a neighbourhood and they see clothes hanging on a line, they would question the lifestyle that they would be buying into, because it might suggest that person can't afford a dryer.

Mary Lou Sayer's trouble drying clothes - a clip from Drying For Freedom

"These communities are based around setting a neutral aesthetic, so that every house in the street does not suggest anything about the person inside. The English middle class would probably not understand that."

A few associations in the UK also restrict line drying, and many British people would endorse the view that clothes flapping in the wind can look unsightly. But it doesn't have the same stigma in the UK, where only 45% of households own a tumble dryer, compared with 79% in the US.

For many Americans, clothes lines are an unwanted reminder of a more frugal age, says Dave Rapaport, senior director of corporate consciousness at Seventh Generation, a firm that sells eco-friendly household products.

"Hanging clothes was the norm prior to the advent of the suburban ideal of modern living in the 1950s. Partly driven by the need to get women back out in the workforce after World War II, partly the need to sell electricity and the appliances being invented to use it, and partly by a idealised notion of progress, clotheslines became a symbol of the life people were leaving behind."

Tumble dryers

  • 79% of American households have a tumble dryer, compared to 45% in the UK and 4% in Italy
  • 20% of Americans live in homes subject to clothes line bans
  • It usually costs at least $100 to run a dryer for one year
  • Some people have reported a 50% drop in electricity bills when they go 'cold turkey' on tumble drying

Sources: Project Laundry List, Energy Information Administration, Defra

He can sense that belief now being slowly eroded, not just because of energy concerns, but by a desire for simplicity, the aesthetic appeal of line drying and a nostalgic return to traditional family chores.

And in the same way that many Americans have embraced the reusable shopping bag, he believes they could learn to love line drying again.

But there are many who say they shouldn't.

Frank Rathbun is spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, which represents tens of thousands of associations nationwide. Most of them do restrict the use of clothes lines, he says, but for good reason.

"More often than not, the rules governing associations were put in place by developers and builders when the communities were being built.

"In most cases, the decision is based largely on community aesthetics. Developers and builders are trying to sell homes, and I think most would tell you that clotheslines could detract from the overall appearance and kerb appeal of the community, and therefore sales.

Do clothes lines lower property prices?

One home-owning association claimed the sight of washing lines could reduce neighbouring property values by up to 15%. But the National Association of Realtors says it's not possible to put a value on this effect. A spokeswoman said that clothes lines were among the biggest sources of complaints among homeowners, in a recent survey, but the impact depended on neighbourhood norms. An area with a high number might leave a less negative impression than just one in a different area, depending on the buyer's expectations and values. She said: "The issue just underscores the fact that many things affect a property value - the home's condition, amenities in relation to other homes in the area, and the neighbourhood itself."

"Regardless of the issue, appearance and kerb appeal have a direct impact on property values and the sale of properties. I think it's safe to say that most associations have kept these rules in place for those very reasons."

Many people are attracted by the these communities because of the rules governing how they look, he says, and in the same way that many residents don't want to open their curtains - front or back - to see rubbish or an abandoned car, they might not want to see a bunch of laundry hanging on a clothesline either. The same rules prohibit statues, fountains and motor boats.

A national survey in 2007 indicated overwhelming opposition among residents to state laws preempting association rules on clotheslines, he says, suggesting that the way some state lawmakers have overturned these restrictions on line drying highlights a more fundamental issue about the collective right of homeowners in private communities to establish the rules for their own neighbourhoods.

"The bottom line is that as a private entity, each association is in the best position to make these determinations. Remember, association boards are elected by their neighbours to serve the best interests of the community as a whole.

A tragic dispute

In 2008, a man was shot dead in Verona, Mississippi, during a dispute apparently over a clothes line. Police said the neighbours were arguing after one told the other to stop hanging his laundry outside.

"It's also important to remember that homeowners in associations have a contractual obligation to abide by rules that have been put in place to preserve the character of the community, protect property values and meet the established expectations of residents in that community.

"If a large percentage of owners really want to change a particular rule, they can probably make that happen."

Below is a selection of your comments

No wonder it is so difficult to get the USA to reduce their carbon footprint with such nonsense as this enshrined in law! Having washing drying outside can enhance neighbourly relationships, as you watch out for each others lines when it might rain, and fetch the things in for the neighbour if it does. Add on the environmental impact of all those unnecessary dryers, the fact that clothes smell so much better and take far less ironing hen they have swayed about in the wind - pretty obvious which is the better.

Rosemarie Tomes, Mansfield

Personally I don't hang my washing out on the line as I do not want my neighbours to see all my washing. Living in Cumbria where it is reasonably windy I have had times where my washing has disappeared over the hedge and going round to ask if you can have your smalls back is a tad embarrassing. Secondly I am very lazy.

Sarah Moorby, Kendal

After spending most of my life in Canada and the US, I've lived in England on and off since 2007, and am a firm convert to line-drying. Aside from the environmental and stress-reducing benefits of the activity, the occasional waft of clean-laundry smell coming from all sorts of people on a typical London day is one of the city's most surprising and delightful attributes. Canada is on its way toward widespread practice (at least most of the year); the US will come around eventually.

Lisa Taylor, London UK, Montreal Canada

I love seeing washing blowing on a line, it's comforting, familiar, and restful. I own a tumble drier but have never used it (it came as part of the washing machine, which was a present) as I much prefer hanging washing out. It smells better, it feels better, it generally irons better, it costs less and it doesn't destroy the environment. I have never understood this thing some people have about washing being "common" (hence lowering house prices), how does seeing that someone is doing washing lower house prices? What could possibly be more natural or restful or more healthy than hanging washing out?

Julia, Taunton

Sheesh! Get a grip, people... they're clothes... what's so offensive about them? You don't object to people wearing them, so why should you object to people washing and drying them? Especially in their own back yard. On a good day, they'll dry in less than 20 minutes anyway. I'm amazed that the US, which is normally so adamant about individual rights to do what they like on their own property, seems to have got so obsessed with telling people they can't do something so trivial and harmless!

Rob , London

Look, ordinarily, I'm all for mocking the foolishness of my countrymen. But there's an important point that seems to have been overlooked by the majority of your responses: this is not a law. It is, instead, the act of "community associations," which in America refers to the developers of private, condominium organizations. They have the right to impose what rules they like, as you apply to join their association when you seek to buy a condo. So, to Rosemarie Tomes and Rob from London, I say this: We're still free to let our socks and shirts fly freely in the breeze of the Land of the Free. Thank you very much.

Jon, Lowell, Massachusetts

This isn't just an American issue. I have a covenant on my house in Surrey that not only prevents me from hanging up laundry on my land, but that prevents me from hanging it indoors where it may be visible from outside. So I technically have to close the curtains when I do my laundry. This is beyond silly.

Rob Turner, Woking

Generally here in Germany and the Netherlands there are few restrictions but drying outside seems not to be the order of the day. Often houses in the Netherlands have warm, well insulated attics where washing can be hung out of the way - here in Germany I have a cellar under the whole of the house where there is an unheated washroom and another room that is heated (we actually hang the washing in the washroom). Funnily enough, in our row of four similar houses, the only people hanging washing outside are our American neighbours!

Timothy Bolton, Selfkant, Germany

As a Brit living here in a HOA which doesn't allow line drying I hang my washing out on a reel-in line or the gazebo. It's crazy to use a dryer when even in October it's 90 degrees! My American husband on the other hand says doesn't like the feel of line dried clothes but what he doesn't see, well he really can't tell!

Karen Richards, Tucson, AZ

As a Brit living in USA it was very difficult at first to accept the Home Owner Associations rules. My HOA is extremely restrictive (it dictates everything involved with the external appearance of my house e.g. color & style of doors and windows, color of roofing tiles, type, structure and color of fences, to name but a few). However, when you buy a property here you know what the HOA restrictions are before you purchase the house so I have no sympathy for those complaining.

Paul Daykin, Reston, Virginia, USA

Mr. Rathburn's comment about people choosing to live in communities governed by home owner associations and their rules is something of a canard. The choice really comes down to either buying a relatively new home that is governed by association rules or buying an older home that isn't. Quite a few people only tolerate home owner association rules because there is no alternative when buying a newer home. The prohibition on hanging out laundry is only one of many highly intrusive rules enforced by many home owner associations to present an artificial and idealized view of their community. Unfortunately, the result is a sterile conformity that doesn't reflect real life.

David G. Miller, Parker, CO USA

My homeowners' association restricts washing lines an I am still considering drying outside. Some of my neighbours get around it by hanging their laundry on children's play structures. I already have solar panels, CFL and LED lighting and reducing dryer use would be the next thing. It's not like we don't get any sunshine in Texas - things would be dry in 30 mins.

Jonn Parker, Austin TX, USA

We've tried clothes lines before, but the compressive heat and humidity in the summer makes it impossible to get something dry in our area.

David, Summerdale, AL, USA

I use a gas dryer myself. I live on the North edge of the Piney Woods. There are no basements. The furnace is well insulated and in a closet. Hang your clothes outside and they get full of pollen. This month it's ragweed; next month, mountain cedar. For several months of the year the cars are yellow because of pine pollen. As for the carbon footprint, we mostly don't believe it. The news last night carried a report on the effects of Cap and Tax. If you did everything, the economy would be decimated and the temperature would be reduced by .0015 degrees in 100 years. Not a heck of a lot of difference. What it would do is make Al Gore and friends a ton of cash.

Terry Williams, Palestine, TX USA

How times have changed! Backyard line drying used to be so important that I have heard my grandmother say, "I don't know much about the new neighbors - it hasn't been washday yet."

pat nelson, Potsdam, NY, USA

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